I finished Black Mesa tonight– the 14 chapters that are available.  It retains its visual impressiveness throughout, but man oh man did I hate the last chapter (Lambda Core).  It’s a master class in horrible map design… though I don’t know whose, Valve’s or Black Mesa‘s.

Since I have a screenshot from a particularly annoying spot in chapter 12, let’s start there.

Now, the rest of the game taught you that blue lasers are Bad– but that you can shoot the mines from a safe distance.  Not here!  Here, doing that will kill you.  Making things you’ve seen before suddenly act differently is game designer dickery.  Change the color or something.

You HL1 fans are probably saying “I remember that room!  That was great!  It took me two hours to get through it.”  There was a similar room in HL2, and I loved/hated it too.  But that one was about three times less complex.  A little dodging and jumping and crawling to avoid death-lasers goes a long way.  Also, I’d say Valve learned in HL2 to make the required path way more discoverable.  You should have a vantage point or something to reconnoitre.  But it’s really hard to see how to get through this room.

Then there’s Lambda Core.  The basic problem is that there’s almost no guidance, and little logic.  I was following a walkthrough, and I’d have to go a couple sentences at a time, because none of it makes any sense.  Sometimes you go down, sometimes up.  There’s a million ladders and control panels and only some of them are relevant.  You eventually learn to press buttons, but there’s no immediate feedback.  Once you have to push the button, then ride a rising shutter that it releases; another button has the rising shutter but you don’t have to ride it.  It just all seemed completely baffling and arbitrary.

In some control rooms there’s a diagram, with lights that turn green as you make progress.  Great!  Only there’s no indication as to where the next red light is.  An earlier puzzle in the same game was done right– the huge laser that has to be powered up, then fired at a wall.  Its diagram is also a (simple) map of the level, so you can orient yourself and figure out where you need to go.  Plus, the power lasers are visible and lead to the main laser, also helping to orient you and give feedback.

From the walkthrough, I learned that the different sections of Lambda Core are color-coded… but this didn’t carry through to those diagrams.

Plus they were really stingy with ammo and health, which just doesn’t fit the rest of the game, nor HL2.

Then there’s the room with the teleports, with, oh god, more split-second jumps.  There was a neat idea in there, but the implementation is just hostile.  Nothing about the energy bulbs suggests teleportation (rather than, say, fiery energy death); the in and out bulbs looked too much alike; it was very hard to see the destination bulbs (and you have to see them to time your jump); the bulbs looked too much like the chamber’s ordinary lamps.

I should emphasize that 90% of the game is just fine– dead ends are short, and you can find the right way by process of elimination, if nothing else.  This chapter just should have been reworked a bit by 2012 standards.

(One thing I wonder after playing through the game… how did the scientists you intermittenly encounter survive so long?  The whole horror aspect of the game is that murderous aliens can teleport in, anywhere, at any time.  There’s no safe area; no door will protect you.  The security guards might have been very busy with their pistols, but most of the scientists seem to have no weapons.)

(And a question for people who played HL1, then HL2.  Did the first few minutes of HL2 feel like a bit of a cheat?  Gordon had traveled to Xen to defeat some ultimate boss– but what did that accomplish, since the Combine took over Earth just afterward?)